Shine gives up on mobile network ad-block threats, wants to play nice

So much for sticking “nuclear weapons” in carriers’ dumb pipes. Shine, last year’s enfant terrible of mobile ad blocking is pivoting (again!) — in both tone of voice and business model. It’s also rebranding to, er, Rainbow.

So, to keep tabs, since 2011 this Disrupt startup battlefield alum has moved from trying to sell mobile antivirus (Shine Security), to threatening network-level mobile ad blocking (Shine Technologies), to — its latest pivot — touting a permission-based marketing platform (Rainbow), which is slated to launch in “late summer”, according to CRO James Collier, who joined the company last June as a hire from the — duh-duh-duh! — ad industry. You can see exactly where this story is going.

Unsurprisingly then, given its new, emollient incarnation, Rainbow is no longer threatening to cut off the ad industry’s access to mobile users’ eyeballs as payment for its data-sapping crimes. Indeed, Rainbow is abandoning the push for/threat of network-level mobile ad blocking. Which, in any case, looked mostly like a loud-mouthed PR strategy to grab as many ad industry exec eyeballs as possible in the hopes of shaking a business model out of the bushes.

Shine had also only chalked up one full deployment of its network-level ad blocking tech: Caribbean mobile operator Digicel; had zero revenue as it was not charging carriers for deployments; and was arguably on shaky regulatory ground in Europe, given net neutrality laws.

Well, after spending the last six months apparently cosying up to ad agencies to spec out its third business plan, here are those next steps — funded by an undisclosed amount of additional investment from its existing investors, led by Horizon Ventures. (Investors who will clearly be hoping for third time luck at the end of this Rainbow.)

The new idea is to act as an ad verification layer, hosted at the network level (by carrier partners, who get cut in via a revenue share) to help enforce industry standards for so called ‘better ads’. So Rainbow is not going to be coming up with any ‘better ad’ criteria itself; rather it’s leaving that to its new best friends in the ad industry — intending to act, purely, as the verifier of existing/established ad standards programs (such as the IAB’s LEAN initiative).

It will not be charging ad agencies to submit their creative for verification. So this is not a paid-whitelist “acceptable ads” model, as per ad blockers such as AdBlock Plus (though ABP amassed vast numbers of users in the desktop era to make that approach fly vs Rainbow having to start from scratch and convince mobile users it’s worth their while to opt in). The verification process will be open to anyone — although only the ads that pass muster will be viewable to Rainbow opt-ins.

Nor, for the record, is Rainbow intending to focus on ad security considerations. So it will not be guaranteeing that verified ads are malware free, for example. (So no, this is not ‘antivirus for mobile ads’.)

Collier says Rainbow’s ad verification process will involve checking against ad industry standards factors such as the weight of the file; the number of calls the ad makes to render; which CDNs it’s called from; the aspect ratio of the ad to the page; the rate of hertz at which an ad flashes; whether the ‘x’ button (for closing an ad) is clear and present at all times; and whether the ad autoplays or not.

So mostly this is about ad look and feel (annoyance) and mobile data consumption (affordability). (NB: The IAB hasn’t yet published the full list of standards — but the list is due soon, according to Collier.)

Rainbow’s hope is that mobile users will eagerly opt-in, via their carrier, to see only Rainbow-verified ads during mobile web browsing sessions. The pitch to convince them to sign up will involve claims of faster web page load times, reduced data consumption and battery drain, and ads that might be slightly less annoying to see.

Unverified ads will be blocked; though ads in native apps will not be filtered out — or at least, not initially, says Collier. Which does reduce the value proposition pretty substantially given how much time consumers spend in messaging/social apps these days vs browsing the wild mobile web.

However the trade off for consumers is they will have to agree to their mobile operator sharing data about them with Rainbow in order to power its relevancy-based-targeting business (which is its route for monetizing the platform).

Rainbow is hoping to sell ad-related intel to publishers and ad agencies, down the line, and even to social networking giants like Facebook — who Collier notes are hungry for even more signals about what mobile users get up to when outside their walled gardens.

“Facebook has a huge amount of interest in understanding more about the consumer outside of Facebook,” says Collier. “They acquired Atlas, thought they could potentially compete with DoubleClick, it did not work, turned it into an analytics business — have been trying to use FAN [Facebook Audience Network] and [social plugins/cookie] linking to try to understand more about their customers outside Facebook, neither of which have had a particular high level of distribution yet, so there’s all kinds of ways we can help.

“Facebook buys tonnes of data — from everyone,” he adds. “As are other social networking apps seeking to do so too.”

So Rainbow thinks it has spied an opportunity to be another link in the chain of Facebook’s data capture mesh.

This means consumers opting in to Rainbow will be opting for more companies to be able to link their email identity to their mobile web browsing, and to receive more targeted ads (based on their identity and certain demographic factors) in exchange for — possibly — a slightly faster and/or cheaper (in data consumption terms) mobile web browsing experience.

The exact value proposition will likely depend on the carriers. Collier notes, for example, that one partner will be offering to refund all ad-related data costs to consumers who opt in.

Europe is the first focus for the team. The Hutchison Group (whose chairman is a Shine investor) will be deploying Rainbow’s platform in the UK in the next nine months, according to Collier, who also says Italy, Austria, Ireland and Scandinavia are the plan after that.

The company will clearly be leaning heavily on carriers to push the platform — Collier describes it as a “co-marketing” effort (though he won’t specify the exact revenue share with carriers, but maybe the word “co-marketing” offers a bit of a clue there).

In terms of the monetization plan, the aim is to sell premium insights subscription services to agencies and publishers — such as (for agencies) being able to “understand the level of accuracy advertising has”, as Collier puts it, plus other sought for intel around industry issues such as ad spoofing.

For publishers the idea is to offer the ability to target ads at segmented groups of mobile web users, based on factors such as age and gender; as well as the capability to match mobile users’ email identities to email addresses held by publishers (in order to link individual web browsing mobile users to other data a partner might already hold on that person for ad targeting purposes).

So basically the idea is to be able to offer a custom audiences ad-targeting proposition (following a Facebook-style playbook).

While much mobile activity involves social and messaging apps, Collier says users are still clicking on links that can pop them out into the mobile browser from those walled gardens. (Albeit, Facebook has a strategy for closing that escape route down too… )

“For publishers it also means that we can combine that browser identity from a Facebook session with the standard identity of a consumer in a browser session. Same with Twitter browser, Gmail browser, any single sign-on environment that launches its own browser view. We can bind all of those consumers together, and we can overlay data or help to extend the first party data you might have on that consumer, into those environments,” he says. “A lot of content is distributed by social apps and sites, all of which have their own browser sessions to view that content.”

“It’s a real pain-point for advertisers — particularly around measuring reach and frequency effectively. As AOL you can’t do it; you can’t match a Facebook browser session to a standard browser session unless that person is logged in, for instance,” he adds. “It’s extending efficiency and effectiveness because we don’t use standard tracking procedures in order to do that. Really what we’re talking about is helping first parties match back a first party cookie, not third party advertising services.”

It’s not clear whether Rainbow has any patents for this approach. We’ve asked and will update this post with any response. Update: A spokesman said: “We’re not commenting on IP matters” — so it’s unclear whether Rainbow’s approach is defensible. Especially given that multiple adtech players do already have techniques for linking devices with browsing using probabilistic matching.